Reprinted with permission from American Jewish Fiction: A JPS Guide (Jewish Publication Society).
Dozens of American Jewish novels handle the issue of intermarriage, and among the most thoughtful of these is Sholem Asch’s East River. Set in the diverse, impoverished neighborhood of 48th Street and the East River in Manhattan, during the years before World War I, Asch’s novel points up one of the inevitable and wrenching consequences of peaceful coexistence between Jews and Christians.
The plot centers on a devout Irish Catholic girl’s involvement with the Jewish Davidowsky family. Pious Moshe Wolf Davidowsky operates a grocery, but he can’t cover his bills because he extends credit to all of the neighbors-even those, like Mary McCarthy’s father (“the block’s official anti-Semite”), who are irresponsible drunks.
Grateful for the shopkeeper’s charity, Mary is attracted first to the grocer’s eldest son, Nathan, a paraplegic and intellectual, and then to Nathan’s younger brother, Irving, a budding tycoon of the garment industry. Struggling to rise from poverty together, Mary and Irving inevitably fall in love, though unlike many of their fictional predecessors, they are not at all naive: they realize from the start how difficult life will be for them, and neither is willing to sacrifice either religion or family ties for the sake of their marriage.
Asch is often remembered now only for his audacious–some would say perverse–Yiddish language trilogy dealing with the life of Christ, but in East River, his evident fascination with Christianity allows him to humanize Mary impressively. Her faith is treated with respect both by her husband, who does not insist she abandon the church for him, and by the author, who represents it as the equivalent of pious Moshe Wolf’s Jewish Orthodoxy in its sincerity and seriousness.
Like any good epic, East River makes room for a wide-ranging cast and a series of captivating discourses on social phenomena, including the connection between dance crazes and women’s rights, the church’s defense of child labor, and the ideologies-from communism and anarchism to Spinozist philosophy and capitalism-that enlivened American Jewish life in the first decades of the 20th century.
Asch harrowingly narrates the infamous Triangle shirtwaist factory fire, in which over 100 young sweatshop workers died in 1911, and he is equally notable as a master in rendering the everyday details of Jewish life.
Further reading: Many of Asch’s books, like East River, were translated into English soon after (or even before) their publication in Yiddish. His best-selling novels may be The Nazarene (1939), The Apostle (1943), and Mary (1949). Those interested in the descriptions of the garment industry found in East River will also want to look at his short novel Uncle Moses (1920). Ben Siegel’s The Controversial Sholem Asch (1976) remains one of the only full-length biographical publications on the author, but recently renewed interest in his work (a conference at Yale in 2000 resulted in a collection of essays, Sholem Asch Reconsidered, that includes an exhaustive and masterful analysis of East River by Dan Miron) suggests that more sources may be forthcoming soon.
Pronounced: moe-SHEH, Origin: Hebrew, Moses, whom God chooses to lead the Jews out of Egypt.